Topiary at Hever Castle

February 19 2024 | Garden

At the turn of the 20th century, billionaire William Waldorf Astor began the great garden transformation at Hever Castle & Gardens, employing over 1,000 men between 1904-1908 to create a garden recognised as one of the great gardens of the world.

Astor’s determination, money and vision combined to drive forward a once-in-a-lifetime design including a unique collection of topiary garden structures.

Astor created a playful maze in 1906 from 1,000 yew trees imported from the Netherlands – the maze helped cement Hever’s reputation as a garden to truly lose yourself in.

The topiary maze, still popular with visitors 120 years on, measures 80ft by 80ft (24.4m) and is 6,400 sq ft in size.  The hedges reach 8ft (2.4m) in height, and the pathways inside stretch for almost a quarter of a mile.

A highlight of the topiary collection at Hever Castle & Gardens is the yew chess set which took three years to shape – it can be found just beyond the Tudor Garden.

There’s great art involved in the creation of topiary – a technique that dates back over 2,000 years to the Romans.  Topiary shapes can be intricate or simple, they can take abstract form or be life-like.

Topiary had its own renaissance in the late 1500s in Europe, so for Astor it may have seemed a particularly fitting garden tradition to breath life back into at the Tudor childhood home of Anne Boleyn.

Playful topiary can be found on Topiary Walk as visitors promenade to the Castle forecourt.   Here topiary peacocks mingle with an octopus, a wild boar, a dove, a butterfly, a snail and even a reindeer.  

Trimmed twice a year at the start of May and in August, the topiary is a recognisable feature of the gardens built by William Waldorf Astor at the turn of the 20th century.

Neil Miller, Head Gardener at Hever Castle & Gardens says of the maintenance of the topiary: “The Tudor style chess set at Hever was planted nearly 120 years ago and over the last few years we have renovated them by looking at early photographs of the chess set and reshaping them.

“In May we give the topiary a ‘short back and sides’ hair cut, while August sees a more ruthless cut. We use hand sheers and a mechanical hedge-cutter. It’s always best to clip small pieces to start with – if you hack down a big piece and make a mistake there’s no sticking it back on! It can take upwards of 3 hours to reshape one of our topiary shapes on Topiary Walk.

“We tend to choose a cloudy day, or day with light rain so that the box and yew don’t get stressed having their ‘hair-cut’ on a dry weather day”

The topiary is truly an ‘ever-green’ element of the gardens at Hever Castle, it never disappoints whether it’s dusted in frost or snow in December, or bursting forth with vibrant new green growth in May, topiary truly has a year-round appeal.